Everything You Wanted to Know About Javanese Gamelan But Were Afraid to Ask: John Pitts’ “Extreme Heterophony”


This is John Pitts‘ second incursion into adapting non-western music for the conventional piano. In doing so he follows a long tradition of fascination with non-western musics by western composers. Listeners will likely be familiar with Beethoven or Mozart who imitated Turkish music to add an exotic dimension to their compositions (Beethoven with his Turkish March sequence in the finale of the 9th Symphony; Mozart imitating Turkish music to add the exotic sound to enhance the geographic setting of his opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio). This fascination gained traction over the years as the great romantics such as Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky, Debussy (whose encounter with gamelan music at the Paris World Fair was formative), and their successors took on similarly exotic interests in their music.

Serious study of non-western music with attention to tunings and rhythms is virtually unknown in the western canon before the twentieth century. Colin McPhee, the Canadian-American composer did his landmark study of Balinese Gamelan music in the 1920s and 1930s (some of which is influenced Benjamin Britten’s ballet, The Prince of the Pagodas) which was the first of a series of such explorations done subsequently by the likes of Lou Harrison, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Alan Hovhaness, David Fanshawe, and others of Balinese, Javanese, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and other cultures. Unlike their forebears, this new generation studied tunings, instrument construction, rhythmic construction, performance practice, compositional methods, etc. instead of basically just fitting the music to the mold of the western paradigm.

The present volume is, as mentioned, the second such effort by British composer/musicologist John Pitts. His first effort detailed suggestions for playing Hindustani Ragas (raags in the British spelling) and was reviewed here on this blog. In that study, as in this one, Pitts takes the fixed tuning of the piano that is familiar to western ears as a given, without getting into the complex issues of tuning (that is a subject unto itself). Neither Hindustani Ragas nor Javanese composition can be played on pianos tuned to the current western standard of twelve tone equal temperament but there are riches to be had in understanding compositional techniques other than tuning and harmony. Pitts uses the piano as a starting point from which to learn about music of other cultures. This appears to have grown out of his own efforts as a western trained musician trying to learn what techniques can be incorporated into the creative processes of western music. Many of the author’s compositions appear to be in part the product of lessons learned from his study of various musical systems including gamelan (Javanese and Balinese), Hindustani raga, and balafon music from Burkina Faso.

For the present volume Pitts consulted with western gamelan masters including Jody Diamond and other members of the international gamelan community. He did his homework well and one of the strengths of this book is in its remarkably lucid exposition of javanese music in a way that is understandable by anyone with a reasonable grasp of western music theory. Here is where the use of the piano serves as a springboard from which one might grasp this musical system in part via the differences in the two. It is this pedagogical aspect to which I refer in my parody in the title of this article. As one with a largely self driven learning of music this volume presents an opportunity to expand my knowledge of gamelan music. It is a friendly approach which makes me no longer “afraid to ask” or afraid to learn.

In the space of approximately 50 pages the author provides a marvelous distillation of the essentials of gamelan music including terminology, descriptions of the various traditional instruments commonly used, and, most crucially, descriptions of some of the processes of composition, melody, and performance practice. There seems to be more data here than one would reasonably expect to fit in those pages. It is a concise reference which many listeners and musicians will want to keep close at hand. These pages alone are worth the price of the book.

What follows is about seventy pages of transcriptions by the author of a traditional javanese composition playable by one or more pianists. Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t simplify the learning of these processes. Rather it clarifies the material so that these concepts are learnable by motivated individuals. The transcriptions are the musical description, if you will, of the processes outlined in the preceding chapters. These are basically teaching etudes in lucidly engraved western notation. Even if the reader lacks sufficient skill at the keyboard (as is the case with your humble reviewer) to actually play these works, the illustration of the concepts described verbally can be understood more completely when one sees them in western notation.

As a listener to a wide variety of music I personally find it useful to be able to learn about music which had previously been just a bit out of reach due to my perception of its impenetrable nature and the lack of easily accessible guides such as this. While it has taken me a while to grasp some of the concepts so as to be able to write a reasonably coherent review of the book I’m gaining insights that are aiding my understanding of gamelan music. The book requires some work to understand largely due to the unusual nature of this music but grasping more as I continue to read and re-read, I find it both compelling and rewarding.

Mr. Pitts concludes with a comprehensive and insightful description of his justification of using the ubiquitous piano as his starting point. He compares it briefly with the common nineteenth century practice of imitating various asian musics with western instruments as noted at the beginning of this review and goes on to enumerate other benefits to be had by using the piano as a learning tool in the study of this music. The book concludes with a very useful bibliography and links to internet resources for those who want to go further in gamelan studies. Far from the dreaded “cultural appropriation”, Pitts’ work is more of a respectful anthropological exploration which acknowledges the value of this music and looks to learn from it. That is celebration and it is invaluable.

Bass Clarinet Goes Rogue: Alicia Lee’s “Conversations with Myself”


New Focus FCR 302

OK, I admit that using the term “rogue” is a stretch. But titles of reviews should help draw the reader to it. And “clickbait” is the new “catchy”. But, in another sense one doesn’t generally think of the bass clarinet as a standalone recital instrument, even with electronics. Increasingly, it seems, new music purveyors are liberating instruments once unthinkable outside an orchestra or chamber ensemble. Jazz players have long used the bass clarinet as a solo instrument alongside the ubiquitous family of saxophones and the flute as the woodwinds that comprise most jazz ensembles,

Classical music has been slow to accept the bass clarinet until relatively recently. I don’t know when the first use of a bass clarinet either as a standalone solo or as part of a chamber ensemble occurred but certainly post 1950. Without getting in to the “whys” of this one can simply embrace the increasing presence of this instrument and its fascinating players.

Here, we get another of the subgenre of “COVID Isolation music”, itself a category worth further exploration.

There are five selections with composition dates ranging from 1983 to 2020 and composers from the still underappreciated Isang Yun to a new name, Hidiaki Aomori, a composer and friend of the soloist. And the remainder are risen and rising stars including the late conductor/composer Pierre Boulez, Grawmeyer Award winner Unsuk Chin, and the prolific Japanese composer Dai Fujikura.

The Fujikura work opens this isolated recital with a melancholy piece which appears to be a set of variations and has the character of a cadenza calling upon both technical and interpretive skills of the performer. And do I hear a nod to minimalism at the end? “Contour” (2020) is a fine opener where Lee displays her technical skills and insight to the composer’s vision.

Then its back to 1985 with one of the technical peaks of Boulez’ work at IRCAM, “Dialogue de L’Ombre Double” for bass clarinet with inscrutably complex electronics. This once leading edge example of the avant garde in its day actually sounds a bit dated but the soloist here seems to humanize the piece with her warm interpretation. And, despite what you may hear in the other tracks here, it is the only one using electronics on this disc.

Isang Yun (1917-1995), the late prolific Korean master is beginning to get more of a reckoning, and this 1983 piece, “Monolog for Bass Clarinet” is a fine entry to the expanding recorded oeuvre of this mid/late-twentieth century embattled and neglected genius. This piece speaks deeply of alone-ness.

Unsuk Chin (1961- ), a rising star and Grawmeyer Award winner is represented by a bass clarinet solo from her much lauded opera “Alice in Wonderland”. This stand alone solo, titled “Advice from a Caterpillar” is a maze of hallucinatory nods to Gershwin, Carl Stalling, and perhaps Prokofiev (in a “Peter and the Wolf” sense) using multiphonics and seems to expand the possibilities of this instrument to limits which might only be transcended with electronic assistance.

Hideaki Aomori‘s “Split” is a rather personal addition, a submission from one friend to another, a gift from one alone to another alone. It is another fine solo work which sits stylistically somewhere between the technical extremes of Boulez and Unsuk Chin and the more melodic work of Fujikura and Yun.

This is a very personal disc on many levels and it is a fine calling card by which to introduce listeners to this fine musician.

Kinga Augustyn Tackles the Moderns


Centaur CRC 3836

Kinga Augustyn is a new musician to these ears. She kindly sent me this wonderful very recent release for review. And she certainly found a reviewer sympathetic to new music here. A quick review of her releases reveals that she has been releasing recordings since at least 2010 and, in addition to many of the “usual suspects” or “warhorses” of the repertoire, she has demonstrated a keen interest in lesser known works as well as recently minted works hoping for a place in the repertoire.

Her album count by my reckoning is up to 13 now and her musical interests appear to range from the baroque with Telemann’s 12 violin fantasies (no, not a transcription of the better known solo flute works) to the very recent works presented on the present disc. Her choices of repertoire for recording are delightfully unusual as she ventures into the work of neglected composers such as Astor Piazolla (1921-1992) and Romuald Twardowski (1930- ). And she has chosen to release an album of Paganini’s 24 Caprices rather than the Bach solo violin works (though these may come later). The point is that she seems interested in bringing out performances of music which gets less attention than the standard repertoire. Indeed she appears to be attempting to influence and add to the canon of solo violin performance repertoire.

How often can one expect to find a solo violin disc where the only familiar piece is one of Luciano Berio’s Sequenzas? Well this is that disc. The earliest work here is Grazyna Bacewicz’s (1909-1969) Sonata No. 2 (1958). Berio’s Sequenza VIII (1976). Along with Isang Yun’s (1917-1995) Koenigliches Thema (1976) are also 20th century pieces. And though the four movements of Elliot Carter’s (1908-2012) Four Lauds begin in the late 20th century (Riconoscenza per Goffredo Petrassi, 1984 and Remembering Aaron, 1999) they end in the 21st century with Remembering Roger, 2000 and Rhapsodic Musings, 2001.

The brief, almost “Webernian” miniatures that comprise Carter’s “Four Lauds” each have an individual character, the first an homage to Aaron Copland (1900-1990) which doubtless represents the composer via a quotation or perhaps some more personal inside reference. The Riconoscenza per Goffredo Petrassi is the longest and seemingly most complex of the group (I don’t know Petrassi’s music as well as I would like so I’m not sure about the references here). The Rhapsodic Musings are not apparently directed to any musician or composer in particular and The Fantasy-Remembering Roger does seem to embody the sound of Roger Sessions’ style.

The Berio is one of a set of 14 pieces for solo instruments (depending on how you count them) and they are a sort of compositional manifesto utilizing extended techniques. Augustyn delivers a very convincing reading of this intentionally challenging work. It is the longest single work on this recording.

This Polish born, New York based violinist has done homage to the music of her homeland before with her Naxos album of miniatures that I doubt you will find elsewhere. On this album she does homage to Polish musical culture by her inclusion of the inexplicably too little known Grazyna Bacewicz and a world premiere of a solo violin work by the well documented Krzysztof Penderecki in his 2008 Capriccio. As one who fell in love with the avant-garde Penderecki of say 1958-1972 I have not paid as much attention to Penderecki’s later works. In a pleasant surprise these ears heard this very late Penderecki piece as almost a summation including tasty bits of avant-gardist techniques along with nicely lyrical passages. I am now convinced I need to do a reappraisal of my knowledge of this composer’s later work.

She follows this with a very significant work by a criminally neglected composer, Grazyna Bacewicz (1909-1969). Her Second Sonata for Solo Violin (1958) is an adventuresome work which challenges the violinist while holding the listener’s attention. It is definitely time for a major reassessment of this woman’s work and one hopes that Augustyn’s reading will help encourage more interest in Bacewicz’s work.

Augustyn next chooses another unjustly neglected composer, Isang Yun (1917-1995) whose biography including kidnapping by the South Korean intelligence officers and subsequent sequestration in a South Korean jail stirred artistic outrage which eventually resulted in his release. The piece played here, “Koniglisches Thema”(1976) brings us back to the beginning of solo violin composition by its quotation of a Bach theme. Not a theme from any of the solo violin music but rather the theme given to Bach by Frederick II of Prussia. The origin of the theme is not by Bach and its compositional origins are much debated but what is not debated is that fanciers of Bach know this theme instantly. Isang Yun writes, apparently, a set of variations on the theme, an offering of his own to the master.

This is a dream of an album for people who appreciate modernism, new music, and undiscovered gems but Augustyn’s readings of the unfamiliar Carter “Four Lauds” and, the most recent work on the disc, Debra Kaye‘s (1956- ) “Turning in Time” (2018) are, for this listener, worth the price of the disc by themselves. Carter is no easy task for listeners and certainly for performers but she manages to find the late post-romantic/post-modern lyricism in these pithy little works. And the Debra Kaye work is “hot off the presses” so to speak, having been written just before the second of the two recording sessions that produced this album. The Kaye work is the second longest on this recording and fits well as a concluding work on this ambitious and engaging program.

New music is in need of talented musicians willing to search for and learn their work and Augustyn happily seems to be willing to fill that bill. Her acumen in being able to know music of substance when she sees it and the ability to bring those scores to life bodes well for listeners interested in this repertoire. After all it’s hard not to notice that the Bacewicz Sonata is her second and completists will want to hear that first one. But, more seriously, I look forward to the upcoming releases by this artist who, when sighted on my radar again, will not be let go without a serious listen.

Quantum Koh: Jennifer Koh’s “Limitless”


kohlimit

Cedille 9000 191

Watching the flowering career of this wonderful violinist has been both a joy and a labor.  First, the labor: she is so consumed with projects that it is difficult to keep up sometimes.  Second, the joy:  All her projects and recordings are fascinating in concept and satisfying to the attuned listener’s ear and to her collaborators.

So it is with this marvelous 2 disc set from Cedille Records (now celebrating its 30th anniversary as one of the finest independent classical labels) which consists of duos with composers.  She partners with a variety of up and coming composers in this varied but always interesting collection. These sincere and intimate collaborations exude quantum sparks of creative genius.

Eight composers and nine compositions span two discs demonstrating the Chicago native’s eclectic interests and marvelously collaborative nature. These compositions represent some of the cutting edge nature of her repertory choices as well as the respect earned from these composers.

It begins with The Banquet by Qasim Naqvi who is perhaps best known for his post minimalist acoustic group, Dawn of Midi. Here Naqvi works with a modular synthesizer utilizing that instrument’s quirks to create a sort of drone with minimalistic effects created by his exploitation of those quirks (this could even be classified as a species of glitch). Koh’s part interacts in ways that seem quasi improvisational, doubtless the product of close collaborative efforts.

Next are the lovely Sanctuary Songs by Lisa Bielawa, a fine singer whose solfege singing was for years part of the defining sound of the Philip Glass Ensemble. (Koh masterfully played the solo violin dressed in costume in the title role in the recent revival of Einstein on the Beach.)  She comes to us on this disc as a both composer and singer in this lovely cycle.

Bielawa has developed her own compositional voice and this little song cycle is a fine example. Both voice and violin are given challenging roles in exploring this unusual combination of musical timbres.  Bielawa compositional voice is entirely her own and her gift for it is evident in this and all that this writer has heard.  The work is in three short movements.

Du Yun, whose astounding work was recently reviewed here is represented by her voice and violin duo, Give me back my fingerprints.  The link on her name will take the curious listener through this composer’s amazing accomplishments but nothing can prepare the listener for the raw energy that characterizes her work.

Rapidly rising star Tyshawn Sorey uses his amazing ear to create this memoriam for one of his mentors, Muhal Richard Abrams. Sorey uses a glockenspiel as a counterpoint to Koh’s violin in this all too brief memorial piece written on the passing of AACM (a gaggle of brilliant musicians whose grouping reminds this writer of France’s “Le Six”, the “Russian Five”, and the early twentieth century “American Five”) founding member, a truly great composer, collaborator, and performer.  The AACM was founded in Chicago.

I had the pleasure of meeting the genial and quick minded Sorey at OM 17.  The link to my blog review is provided for the curious listener.  The concert took place in 2012.  Here is the shortcut to the Other Minds archival page.  Sorey provides no liner notes perhaps because he has succeeded in saying everything he wanted to say in the music (Koh seems quite appropriately tuned in here.

Nina Young‘s Sun Propeller involves the composer on electronics which interact to some degree with the solo acoustic instrument to extend the range of what the audience hears from the violin.  The title refers to the rays of sun one sees when the sun is behind a cloud and the sunbeams radiate out in glorious fashion.  This serves as a metaphor for the process involved in the composition.  But not to worry, the complexity does not hide the beauty of the music itself.

As if all the preceding weren’t enough there is a second disc continuing this collaboration.  First up is another name new to this writer, Wang Lu .  This Chinese American composer uses electronics alongside acoustic instruments in much of her work.  Her digital sampling reflects the eclectic nature of her world comprising everything from Korean pop to Chinese opera and a host of environmental sounds.  This piece also contains an opportunity for the composer to do some free improvisation as well as provide accompaniment to Koh’s violin part.  It is a dizzying and mind manifesting experience.

Next up is Vijay Iyer.  Iyer is perhaps best known as a jazz pianist and, as such, he is a fine example but his south Asian heritage doubtless has had an influence on him musically though that is but one aspect of his work. The American born Iyer, like many of his generation, mine their and our collective heritages as needed for inspiration. The present composition, “Diamond” also draws from his rich cultural background as it refers to the Buddhist Diamond Sutra and utilizes the structure of that religious parable to create the piece.  It is probably the most conventional sounding work here but that tells the listener little given the wide ranging eclecticism.  It is a piece which gives homage to jazz filtered through the experience and the person that is Vijay Iyer and, in this case, shared with the violinist.

The last composer is Missy Mazzoli, an established American composer.  She is represented by two works, “A Thousand Tongues” and (the now Grammy nominated) “Vespers”.  The composer provides accompaniment with piano and electronics.  The first piece has more the ambiance of a pop song though an avant garde one.  The last piece, the Vespers, feels deeper and more haunting.  Both provide more than adequate writing to keep soloist Koh both busy and happy.  

Indeed this album will keep the astute listener happy for its musical content, its progressive interest in new music, its wonderful soloist and beautiful sound.


 

When Politics and the Arts Clash, OM 22


Isang Yun (1917-1995)


The relationship between politics and music is complex and varied.  There are many instances of clashes between these two disciplines from the politics of state and church sponsored music to its repression by those same institutions.

After centuries of Catholic church sponsored music a decision was made in 1903 to repress the performance of anything but Gregorian chant and any instruments except for the ubiquitous organ.  The reasons for this decree have been discussed but the end result was less work for musicians.

More recently the Nazi “degenerate art” concepts and the later proscriptions on “formalist music” in Soviet Russia similarly put artists and musicians out of work.  In fact many were jailed or killed.  Shostakovich and Prokofiev were high profile musicians who endured bans on performances of their music based ostensibly on claims that it brought (or potentially brought) harm to the state’s political visions.

Even more recently the blacklist created by Joseph McCarthy and his acolytes perpetrated a similar assault on actors, directors and writers like Dalton Trumbo (recently dramatized in the excellent film Trumbo with Bryan Cranston leading the fine cast).  This sad chapter of history did not completely end until the 1970s and only recently have efforts succeeded in restoring suppressed screen credits to these films.  Many lives were destroyed or irreparably harmed.  One hopes, of course, that such travesties will not be repeated but the recent efforts to eliminate the NEA suggest that such struggles remain with us.

On February 18th Other Minds will present a centennial celebration of two composers’ births.  Lou Harrison certainly expressed some political themes in some of his music but did not incur state sponsored political wrath.  Unfortunately this was not the case with the other honoree of Other Minds’ 22nd season.

In 1967 Korean composer Isang Yun was kidnapped by South Korean intelligence officers and taken to South Korea to face accusations of collaboration with the communist government of North Korea.  He was held for two years and was subjected to interrogation and torture based on information later acknowledged to have been fabricated.  Even so South Korea declined to allow the ailing composer’s request to visit his hometown in 1994.  He died the following year in his adoptive home in Berlin, Germany.

A petition signed by over 200 artists including composers Karlheinz Stockhausen, Hans Werner Henze, Gyorgy Ligeti and conductors Otto Klemperer and Joseph Keilberth among the many was sent to the South Korean government in protest.  A fine recent article by K. J. Noh, Republic of Terror, Republic of Torture puts the incident in larger political context. It is a lesson sadly relevant even now in our politically turbulent times.

The concert will feature works from various points in his career, both before and after the aforementioned incident.  It is a fine opportunity to hear the work of this too little known 20th century master.  Conductor and pianist Dennis Russell Davies knew and worked with both Harrison and Isang.  It is so fitting that he will participate along with his wife, justly famed new music pianist Maki Namekawa, in this tribute to the the late composer.  This can’t right the wrongs but what better way to honor a composer than by performing his music?

The performance is at 7:30 PM at the historic Mission Dolores Basilica at 3321 16th Street
San Francisco, CA 94114.  Tickets available (only $20) at Brown Paper Tickets.

E-Do: Yeominrok, Wonderful Korean Musical Fusion


yeominrok

Pony Canyon PCSD 01023

Call it world music, call it jazz, call it fusion but whatever the description this is an innovative and fascinating musical journey.  Using traditional Korean instruments as well as the usual keyboards, vocals, and drums this group of young musicians crafts a very interesting and beautiful tapestry of sound.

I have long had an interest in and some appreciation of traditional Korean musics and instruments but my knowledge is rather limited.  I am inclined to compare this group to Oregon, the iconic jazz/new age experimental band of the 1970s but unlike Oregon’s more widely cast net we see young musicians embracing their ancient Korean musical heritage as they seek to express themselves and invoke the wisdom of their ancestors.  This album was sent to me as a gift from a friend but I quickly fell in love with it and I had to write a review.

It seems to me that Korea has, more than many countries, been damaged and stunted by the antics that became known as World War II and the Korean War.  As a result this rich and ancient culture was nearly erased in favor of geographic division and political expediency.  It is heartening to find young artists such as these seeking to communicate with if not actually recover some of this rich past.

This band is named after a revered 15th century Korean king and they make liberal use of traditional Korean instruments alongside their drums, keyboards, and vocals.  The album succeeds to some degree in achieving a synthesis (as opposed to a sappy watering down) of traditional music and something like jazz with some rock and pop sensibility.  These are sincere and perceptive artists and if they have not fully succeeded then they have made a significant step toward reviving some of their justly valued history and culture.

In addition to its musical values this is a gorgeously produced album (visually and sonically) and I am sorry to see that only the digital download is available on Amazon.

There are six tracks on the disc and all feature traditional Korean instruments alongside the band’s keyboards, drums and vocals.  There are few vocals but no words as far as I can tell and any program is implied at best.  This is strictly about the music.

The first track, Bird of Oblivion, unfolds like an Indian raga with a meditative slow beginning giving way to a faster section.  It is the most extended work on the disc at 13:51 and it certainly serves to bdraw the listener in.  The remaining tracks range from pop-inflected jazz (track 3) to a little bit of rock .  Throughout the traditional Korean instruments make their presence known but not overwhelmingly.  This album is a pretty successful synthesis of old and new.

E Do consists of:

Kyung-hwa Ryu: chulhyungeum, yanggeum, janggu, kkwaenggwari

Chung Lim: drums, jungju, gong

Min-soo Cho: junggu, Korean drum, Korean fan, percussion

Jung-chul Seo: electronic bass, contrabass

Young-Sup Lee: daegeum, taepyeongso, danso, ocarina

Seung-hwan Yang: keyboards

Tae-young Kim: vocals

Young-goo Lee: daegum

Seek this one out.  And don’t forget to pick up some traditional Korean music as well.  It is well worth your time and, after all, a nod to the fine efforts of this wonderful group.